NREL Expert Provides Insight Into Cellulosic Research

“Biomass technology really is in its infancy,” said Tom Richard, director of the Penn State Biomass Energy Center. But its future may hold a lot of promise. At least that’s what scientists who attended the CrossOver 2007 conference at Penn State [earlier this month] are hoping.

The two-day conference was an event designed to highlight research into bioenergy. This year’s theme, “Bioenergy: From Fields To Wheels,” focused on emerging technologies that could turn a variety of things—pond scum, grasses and plant bacteria among them—into vital sources of energy for the future.

With energy consumption projected to increase dramatically over the next few years and oil prices continuing to be high, most experts believe [renewable] energy sources will be vital in the next 10 years.

Tom Foust of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Denver, Colo., a keynote speaker, believes that alternative energy sources will make big strides in the future. But they will never replace oil and gasoline for good, he believes. At least it doesn’t look that way now.

According to Foust, a study commissioned in 2005 called “the billion ton study,” claimed the U.S. has enough resources to sustainably produce about 1.3 billion tons of biomass per year. Foust said the 1.3 billion tons would equal about 1.9 billion barrels of oil—or about 30 percent of the 6.4 billion barrels of oil consumed in the country today. Making it economical and sustainable will be key.

Right now, ethanol, backed by large government subsidies and lots of support, is one of the biggest alternative fuels being produced, largely by corn. The vast supply of corn in the Midwest coupled by the government’s desire for quick results, is what Foust said is driving the corn ethanol movement.

But many experts, Foust included, believe corn ethanol is not sustainable enough to replace large amounts of gasoline and oil.

He believes cellulosic ethanol, which is derived from plants and grasses, is the wave of the future. “If we are going to produce biofuels, we need to move into cellulosic,” he said.

Making it competitive for companies to produce is not easy. Not to mention that the technology is still only in the development stage and is probably years away. The cost of producing cellulosic ethanol right now is more than $2.50 a gallon, according to Foust. Feedstock costs and low yields contribute to most of the expense, he said.

Add on additional taxes and surcharges and Foust said it would bump the retail price to between $3.50 and $4 per gallon, compared to gasoline which ranges anywhere from $2 to $3 per gallon, depending on oil prices and demand.

And when the fuel is produced, how will it get to consumers? Even though there are now 1,000 E-85 (fuel made from 85 percent ethanol) stations in the country, more than a 10-fold increase from 2002 when there were only 85, the number still pales in comparison to the amount of gasoline stations in existence. Flex fuel vehicles, cars that are able to operate on E-85, are only now being made available.

For ethanol to become truly competitive with fossil fuels, Foust estimated production costs would have to be reduced to about $1.31 a gallon to get it down to $2.50 at retail. But it’s a big task, he said, considering the efficiency of cellulosic ethanol production would have to be vastly improved to reduce feedstock costs and to meet the government’s goal of 2012 to get cellulosic ethanol to a point where it is competitive.

“The potential is there,” he said, but he added, “I think there is too much focus on ethanol.”

In Europe, biodiesel research is getting serious attention, with a proposal to eventually run 70 to 80 percent of the European car and truck fleet on biodiesel.

Foust said there is also work being done here that looks at gasification technology, with a similar goal of getting production costs to $1.31 a gallon by 2012. Gasification is a process in which certain carbon-based products such as coal, petroleum and biomass are converted into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, creating something called “syngas” which can be used as a fuel. But the technology is also still in its beginning stages.

In the end, some still believe ethanol may prove to be the best alternative to quenching the country’s thirst for fuel.

“The political forces that control the funds are looking for five to 10 year solutions. And that money now is going into ethanol,” Foust said.

And it could be a boon for farmers. “It’s going to provide them another cash crop. Another alternative that will help them stay in business.”

Chris Torres is a staff writer at Lancaster Farming. This article was reprinted with permission from Lancaster Farming.

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